Church History, Features, Pastorate, Preaching, Theology
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Profiles in Church History: John A. Broadus

John A. Broadus is arguably the most important preacher in the last 250 years. It is no small thing that his book on preaching continues to be printed so long after its original publishing. Serious students of preaching and pastors would do well to give close attention to his life and teachings. This paper will explore his life and ministry beginning with a short biographical sketch followed by some important theological convictions necessary to understanding Broadus’ preaching. Next, the strengths and weaknesses of his preaching approach will be highlighted. Lastly, I will consider an important blind spot in Broadus’ ministry that serves as a cautionary tale for pastors today.

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH 

John Broadus was born to a modest, but hard-working, farming family on January 24, 1827 in Culpepper County, Virginia. His parents were godly and had a tremendous impact on his life, particularly his father Major Edmund Broadus. Edmund was a man of great character and activity who provided John with deep spiritual roots. 1David S. Dockery, “Mighty in the Scriptures: John A. Broadus and His Influence on A.T. Robertson and Southern Baptist Life,” in John A. Broadus: A Living Legacy, ed. David S. Dockery, Roger D. Duke, and Michael A. G. Haykin, Studies in Baptist Life and Thought (Nashville, Tenn: B & H Academic, 2008), 13. Edmund, a farmer, a major in the Virginia militia, and a miller also found himself as the leader of the Whig party in the state and worked personally with Thomas Jefferson. He raised John in the Baptist church of Virginia and educated him in a subscription school, Black Hill Boarding School. 2Dockery, 13. During the last year of his schooling, John attended a prolonged meeting at Mt. Poney Baptist Church where he heard the preaching of Reverend Charles Lewis and Reverend Barnett Grimsley. 3Tom J. Nettles, The Baptists: Key People in Forming a Baptist Identity (Fearn: Mentor, 2005), 294. The Lord used the earlier salvation and baptism of his sister to open Broadus’ eyes to his need for salvation and it was at this time that John trusted the Lord saying, “I came to cherish a belief, a humble hope in Christ . . .” 4John Albert Broadus, Immersion Essential to Christian Baptism, (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1892), 36. The stage was set for Broadus to make an inestimable impact on the world.

In 1846, Broadus began his education at the prestigious University of Virginia where, by all accounts, he was an “eager and dedicated student.” 5Dockery, “Mighty in the Scriptures: John A. Broadus and His Influence on A.T. Robertson and Southern Baptist Life,” 15. Even as a young man, God began to work through Broadus to reach other students. He was diligent to serve others, attended church services, and was particularly evangelistic. In 1846, he finally surrendered to vocational ministry, a call he never again doubted. 6Dockery, 17. While at UVA, Broadus so distinguished himself as a student and scholar that he was chosen to deliver the graduation speech. 7Nettles, The Baptists, 245. After graduation, he tutored in Fluvanna County for a year before accepting a call to pastor in Charlottesville in September of 1851. Simultaneously, he accepted an associate professorship at UVA teaching Latin and Greek and soon became the campus chaplain.

Over the next few years, the idea of founding a Southern Baptist seminary began to gain traction as James Petigru Boyce worked to get it off the ground. After serving on a feasibility study committee, Broadus, along with Basil Manly Jr., agreed to leave his beloved home in Charlottesville and join the faculty at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary which opened in 1859 in Greenville, SC. 8Dockery, “Mighty in the Scriptures: John A. Broadus and His Influence on A.T. Robertson and Southern Baptist Life,” 19. Reportedly Broadus and Manly Jr. both said to each other, “I’ll go if you will go.” 9Dockery, 18. This new endeavor would envelop the rest of Broadus’ life and work. He poured all that he was into the tremendously important work there, even turning down countless opportunities to go elsewhere. After the war, when the seminary was forced to move to Louisville, KY, Broadus moved as well and continued to teach. His first preaching class after the war contained only one blind student, and yet he still taught. In 1889, he became the president of the seminary following the death of Boyce. Coincidently, that was also the year he delivered the “lost” Lyman Beecher lectures at Yale. Already in bad health when assuming the presidency, Broadus never regained his full strength and eventually passed away on March 16, 1895. The Louisville Courier-Journal reported, “There is no man in the United States whose passing would cause more widespread sorrow than that of Doctor Broadus.” 10Dockery, 21.

THEOLOGICAL CONVICTIONS 

The theological convictions of Broadus must be understood in order to clearly capture Broadus as a preacher, theologian, and educator. Dr. Hershael York notes that the study of Broadus’ theology differs from many other historical preachers. Often, researchers must start with sermons and statements then “work backwards . . . inferring the underlying doctrinal positions.” 11Hershael W. York, “Carefully Expositing the Authoritative Scriptures,” in A Legacy of Preaching: The Life, Theology, and Method of History’s Great Preachers (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2018), 216. That is certainly not the case here. The confessional statement of the seminary, the Abstract of Principles, provides a clear and robust explanation of the founder’s doctrinal positions and thus speaks volumes about the theological convictions undergirding Broadus’ preaching. 12York, 216.

The Abstract, which Broadus himself played a part in crafting, grew out of confessional statements used by Baptist associations in Philadelphia and Charleston, and the earlier Second London Confession. Leaving no room for theological maneuvering, the confession statement ensures that every professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary is thoroughly orthodox. The confessional document has been appropriately described as “in line with historic orthodoxy at every point.” 13York, 217. Broadus’ signing of the document demonstrates his unwavering theological commitment to orthodox views of the Scriptures, the Trinity, the providence of God, election, regeneration, justification, sanctification, the ordinances, and much more. His preaching reflected these deep theological commitments. Throughout the history of the church, preaching has often been detached from orthodoxy. 14For a comprehensive overview of preaching see David L. Larsen, The Company of the Preachers: A History of Biblical Preaching from the Old Testament to the Modern Era (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1998). For Broadus, such preaching would have been not only unthinkable but would cease to be “preaching” in any real sense. These very convictions that drove him to preach, teach, and write extensively. Good preaching could help defend the church against the “subtle infidelity” of heterodox beliefs by educating the laity in Christian doctrine. 15Nettles, The Baptists, 306.

Far from shying away from doctrinal points, Broadus often dedicated whole sermons to doctrinal positions. 16John Albert Broadus, Favorite Sermons of John A. Broadus, ed. Vernon L. Stanfield (New York: Harper, 1959), 91–97. See his sermon titled “The Necessity of Atonement.” When C.H. Toy, a professor at the seminary who eventually resigned, began to believe and teach a heterodox view of the Scriptures and evolution, Broadus rightly recognized the dangers of such theology, even while many other Baptists felt the departure to be a small thing. 17For a full recounting see Gregory A. Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009 (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 181–90. He continued to show affection and concern for Toy after he left the seminary but found that many had “little discernment” in their evaluation of the theological issues at stake. 18Nettles, The Baptists, 308. His preaching was powerful and effective precisely because of his commitment to the truth of the Bible. Preaching devoid of rich doctrinal truth will always be devoid of real spiritual power.

One aspect of his theological commitments that had a profound impact on his preaching was his total reliance on the authority of God’s Word. True preaching lays bare the text of Scripture. Broadus believed that the Bible did not merely “contain but is the Word of God.” 19William A. Mueller, A History of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1959), 80. His commitment to the absolute truthfulness and divine authority can be seen in his response to the C.H. Toy controversy was mentioned. Broadus stopped short of affirming verbal plenary inspiration, as Basil Manly Jr. did, simply because he was cautious in “theorizing” the mechanisms of inspiration. 20Dockery, “Mighty in the Scriptures: John A. Broadus and His Influence on A.T. Robertson and Southern Baptist Life,” 33. In order to hand down this confidence in the Bible he included a section on the Scriptures in his catechism for children, writing, “‘Has it been proven that the inspired writers stated anything as true that was not true?’ He answers, ‘No; there is no proof that inspired writers made any mistakes of any kind.’” 21Nettles, The Baptists, 310. In the Word of God, Broadus found the basis and content for his sermons. In chapter one of his seminal work on preaching, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, he states,

It is manifest that to take a text gives a certain air of sacredness to the discourse. But more than this is true. The primary idea is that the discourse is a development of the text, and explanation, illustration, application of its teaching. Our business is to teach God’s Word…our undertaking is not to guide the people by our own wisdom, but to impart to them the teachings of God in his Word. 22John Albert Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 1st ed. (Louisville, KY: The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2012), 22. From here out referred to as Treatise. Originally published in 1870, this is the only reprint of the first edition. There are over 50 in total but all references in this work refer to the reprint of the first edition.

For Broadus, preaching was important because the preacher, in expounding the Scriptures, speaks for God. Preaching is authoritative and powerful because the Word of God is authoritative and powerful. Even Broadus’ well-known use of rhetorical principles did not overshadow his desire to make meaning of the Word plain, in fact, Roger Duke notes that “nothing was more important than bringing clarity and plainness to the pulpit.” 23Roger D. Duke, “John A. Broadus, Rhetoric, and A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons,” in John A. Broadus: A Living Legacy, ed. David S. Dockery, Roger D. Duke, and Michael A. G. Haykin, Studies in Baptist Life and Thought (Nashville, Tenn: B & H Academic, 2008), 81. His commitment to clarity and plainness flows directly from his commitment to the truthfulness and authority of the Word of God. This commitment followed him through the entirety of his life and ministry. The last words he spoke in a formal teaching setting so beautifully captured the essence of his ministry. At the conclusion of his last lecture in the English New Testament, student C.L. Corbitt recounts that he urged his students to be men “mighty in the Scriptures.” 24Nettles, The Baptists, 313.

Broadus was evangelistic in his preaching because he believed preaching was the primary means the Holy Spirit used to regenerate men. 25York, “Carefully Expositing the Authoritative Scriptures,” 219. While he considered many other aspects of pastoral ministry important, nothing could surpass preaching. Preaching is unique to Christianity and sets it apart from the world’s other religions, even Judaism. Early in his treatise he asserts, “The great appointed means of spreading the good tiding of salvation through Christ is preaching—words spoken, whether to the individual or to the assembly. And this, nothing can supersede.” 26Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 1. Printing can be a great tool for the minister, pastoral work is crucial, but both fall behind preaching in importance. 27Broadus, 1. Throughout the history of the church, faithful preaching has often accompanied great works of the spirit and tremendous revival. Broadus believed this and therefore gave his life to train preachers to be faithful stewards of the pulpit. When the pulpit is weak and anemic, the church will be weak and anemic. In his introduction to his volume Favorite Sermons of John A. Broadus Vernon Stanfield attributes the power of his preaching to his “conscious purpose to lead his hearers to some spiritual decision.” 28Broadus, Favorite Sermons of John A. Broadus, 9. Broadus, one of the sharpest and most academically accomplished preachers of the 19th century, was used by God because he focused on bringing people to a response, namely trust in Christ. One will only begin to understand his preaching by grasping the foundational convictions that underlie it.

STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES IN PREACHING 

The preaching of Broadus abounds in strengths and has relatively few real weaknesses. In determining which strengths to highlight one must choose from an embarrassment of riches. The following strengths are highlighted for their particular helpfulness to this author, followed by one tepid weakness.

The use of rhetoric and eloquence in sermons has long confounded faithful preachers. In light of Paul’s seeming denunciation of eloquence in 1 Corinthians, what place does rhetoric have in preaching, if at all? Arguably, no pastor, preacher, or professor has answered this question better than Broadus. 29Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 1–18. His Treatise is a tour de force of the appropriate and fitting use of rhetorical principles in preaching.  In analyzing the rhetoric of Broadus, Duke points out that Broadus learned not only from the classical rhetoricians, but that he benefited from those, like Augustine, who had already “adapted rhetoric for preaching.” 30Duke, “John A. Broadus, Rhetoric, and A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons,” 72. He was deeply influenced by Aristotle’s Canon’s of Rhetoric and one may recognize that he organized his Treatise around the work. 31Duke, 73. In the introduction to the Treatise, he defines eloquence as follows: “Eloquence is so speaking as not merely to convince the judgment, kindle the imagination, and move the feelings, but to give a powerful impulse to the will.” 32Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 3. When we understand that he viewed the aim of preaching as moving one to a decision for Christ, it’s not hard to understand why Broadus believed eloquence could serve the preacher and the sermon. One is hard-pressed to find a better discussion, or example, of the proper use of rhetoric and eloquence in preaching than John Broadus and his Treatise.

Broadus’ commitment to the full authority and truthfulness of the Word led him to allow the text itself to drive his sermons, making him a model for preachers in every age. Richard Melick, in measuring the preaching of Broadus against modern preaching theory, notes that he resisted “spiritualization and misrepresentation” with a strong “emphasis . . . on letting the text determine meaning.” 33Richard Melick, “New Wine in Broadus Wineskins?,” in John A. Broadus: A Living Legacy, ed. David S. Dockery, Roger D. Duke, and Michael A. G. Haykin, Studies in Baptist Life and Thought (Nashville, Tenn: B & H Academic, 2008), 120. In an age where many preachers were happy to give a cursory nod to the text, Broadus believed that faithfulness required tethering oneself to the passage. Chapter two of Treatise lays out both the importance and the obligation a preacher has to get the text right. He goes so far as to even provide examples of common misinterpretations. The responsibility of the preacher is clearly laid out. His duty is to “interpret and apply his text in accordance with its real meaning,” and is thus “bound to represent the text as meaning precisely what it does mean.” 34Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 1. The actual words of the text should be studied carefully and in context in order that the preacher may not abuse the Scriptures; twisting the words or merely making them a “motto.” Modern preachers would do well to heed such wise advice, sticking close to the Scripture when they dare speak for God.

Another important strength to consider when studying the preaching of Broadus is his focus on clarity. There may have been no more important aspect of sermon preparation for him than to bring “clarity and plainness to the pulpit.” 35Duke, “John A. Broadus, Rhetoric, and A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons,” 81. If one understands his commitment to the Bible, this laser focus on clarity in preaching makes perfect sense. Augustine’s saying Veritas pateat, Veritas placeat, Veritas moveat (“Make the truth plain, make it pleasing, make it moving”) proved to be a guidepost for Broadus as he considered sermon structure and construction. Despite his familiarity and comfortability with advanced rhetorical technique, he was nevertheless fixated on being clear and plain. 36Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 4.

A potential weakness one could identify in the preaching of Broadus is that he was not always as committed to what modern ministers consider “expository” preaching as his teaching may lead us to believe. In his ‘lost’ Yale lectures he argues that expository preaching is clearly the best and most appropriate model of preaching for the church. 37Mark M. Overstreet, “Now I Am Found: The Recovery of the ‘Lost’ Yale Lectures and Broadus’s Legacy of Engaging Exposition,” in John A. Broadus: A Living Legacy, ed. David S. Dockery, Roger D. Duke, and Michael A. G. Haykin, Studies in Baptist Life and Thought (Nashville, Tenn: B & H Academic, 2008), 165. In Treatise, Broadus defines expository preaching as a discourse that is focused on the exposition of a part Scripture. 38Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 265. That ‘part’ may be a whole passage or simply a short phrase. There he lays out not only the advantages to expository preaching but answers important objections. 39Broadus, 264. He skillfully presents the case for exposition in general but does not argue robustly for continuous exposition, i.e. a series of expositional sermons through a book. Many, if not most, present-day faithful expositors would argue for continuous exposition: walking consecutively through a book of the Bible. That is not what you will find when you examine the sermons of Broadus. For example, his sermons entitled “The Necessity of Atonement” from 1 John 1: 7 is a beautiful exposition of the doctrine of the atonement, but gives only a cursory nod to the actual text. 40Broadus, Favorite Sermons of John A. Broadus, 91–97. His own definition of expositions allows for this sort of sermon built on a single verse or short phrase, but would not be the ideal primary biblical diet for a congregation. One may ask after reading the sermon, were his listeners any more knowledgeable about 1 John 1:7 than before?

DISTURBING BLIND SPOT 

Despite his robust theology and his passionate preaching, there was still one area of his life that was not compatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ: his support of antebellum slavery. In a landmark report, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary exposed its ugly history with racism and slavery. Unfortunately, none of the founders escape unscathed, even Broadus. What follows are just a few bare facts concerning Broadus’ relationship with slavery.

Broadus owned two slaves himself, and the entire founding faculty owned 55 between themselves. 41Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville: Southern Seminary, 2019), 5. He defended the moral righteousness of slaveholding. In 1863, he wrote and presented resolutions to the SBC to support the cause of the Confederacy. He served as a chaplain in the confederate army. 42Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville: Southern Seminary, 2019), 6. He not only believed but propagated the myth of black inferiority, even suggesting that the Seminary be moved to Lynchburg, VA because it was “in a white man’s country.” 43Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville: Southern Seminary, 2019), 26. I resonate deeply with the questions posed in the report by Dr. Albert Mohler, “How could our founders, James P. Boyce, John Broadus, Basil Manly Jr., and William Williams, serve as such defenders of biblical truth, the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the confessional convictions of this Seminary, and at the same time own human beings as slaves— based on an ideology of race—and defend American slavery as an institution?” 44Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville: Southern Seminary, 2019), 3.

After reading Broadus it is hard to imagine one who so eloquently preached the gospel of the Lord Jesus could justify owning another person. There is a lesson here to learn: take heed lest you fall. It is all too easy to find the blind spots of other men, especially dead men. If I am known at all in 200 years, what blind spots might a historian find in my life? If someone in the distant future were to read copies of 150 of my sermons would they be appalled at my sparse references to abortion in light of the massive blight that it is on our nation? I cannot currently answer that question. I am reminded, though, that I must constantly be seeking the Lord and asking for the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. I desire to look, live, and serve like Jesus. The life of Broadus teaches us that it is possible to love the Lord and be used greatly by him, and yet still tragically miss clear gospel implications. But for the grace of God, there go I.

CONCLUSION 

Among evangelical preachers, Broadus stands alone in his service to the church. His Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons is unrivaled in its usefulness for students of preaching. Pastors and pastors-in-training can learn much from the wisdom and faithfulness of Broadus. May the church continue to benefit from the ministry of John Broadus for generations to come.

References   [ + ]

1. David S. Dockery, “Mighty in the Scriptures: John A. Broadus and His Influence on A.T. Robertson and Southern Baptist Life,” in John A. Broadus: A Living Legacy, ed. David S. Dockery, Roger D. Duke, and Michael A. G. Haykin, Studies in Baptist Life and Thought (Nashville, Tenn: B & H Academic, 2008), 13.
2. Dockery, 13.
3. Tom J. Nettles, The Baptists: Key People in Forming a Baptist Identity (Fearn: Mentor, 2005), 294.
4. John Albert Broadus, Immersion Essential to Christian Baptism, (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1892), 36.
5. Dockery, “Mighty in the Scriptures: John A. Broadus and His Influence on A.T. Robertson and Southern Baptist Life,” 15.
6. Dockery, 17.
7. Nettles, The Baptists, 245.
8. Dockery, “Mighty in the Scriptures: John A. Broadus and His Influence on A.T. Robertson and Southern Baptist Life,” 19.
9. Dockery, 18.
10. Dockery, 21.
11. Hershael W. York, “Carefully Expositing the Authoritative Scriptures,” in A Legacy of Preaching: The Life, Theology, and Method of History’s Great Preachers (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2018), 216.
12. York, 216.
13. York, 217.
14. For a comprehensive overview of preaching see David L. Larsen, The Company of the Preachers: A History of Biblical Preaching from the Old Testament to the Modern Era (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1998).
15. Nettles, The Baptists, 306.
16. John Albert Broadus, Favorite Sermons of John A. Broadus, ed. Vernon L. Stanfield (New York: Harper, 1959), 91–97. See his sermon titled “The Necessity of Atonement.”
17. For a full recounting see Gregory A. Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009 (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 181–90.
18. Nettles, The Baptists, 308.
19. William A. Mueller, A History of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1959), 80.
20. Dockery, “Mighty in the Scriptures: John A. Broadus and His Influence on A.T. Robertson and Southern Baptist Life,” 33.
21. Nettles, The Baptists, 310.
22. John Albert Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 1st ed. (Louisville, KY: The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2012), 22. From here out referred to as Treatise. Originally published in 1870, this is the only reprint of the first edition. There are over 50 in total but all references in this work refer to the reprint of the first edition.
23. Roger D. Duke, “John A. Broadus, Rhetoric, and A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons,” in John A. Broadus: A Living Legacy, ed. David S. Dockery, Roger D. Duke, and Michael A. G. Haykin, Studies in Baptist Life and Thought (Nashville, Tenn: B & H Academic, 2008), 81.
24. Nettles, The Baptists, 313.
25. York, “Carefully Expositing the Authoritative Scriptures,” 219.
26, 34. Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 1.
27. Broadus, 1.
28. Broadus, Favorite Sermons of John A. Broadus, 9.
29. Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 1–18.
30. Duke, “John A. Broadus, Rhetoric, and A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons,” 72.
31. Duke, 73.
32. Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 3.
33. Richard Melick, “New Wine in Broadus Wineskins?,” in John A. Broadus: A Living Legacy, ed. David S. Dockery, Roger D. Duke, and Michael A. G. Haykin, Studies in Baptist Life and Thought (Nashville, Tenn: B & H Academic, 2008), 120.
35. Duke, “John A. Broadus, Rhetoric, and A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons,” 81.
36. Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 4.
37. Mark M. Overstreet, “Now I Am Found: The Recovery of the ‘Lost’ Yale Lectures and Broadus’s Legacy of Engaging Exposition,” in John A. Broadus: A Living Legacy, ed. David S. Dockery, Roger D. Duke, and Michael A. G. Haykin, Studies in Baptist Life and Thought (Nashville, Tenn: B & H Academic, 2008), 165.
38. Broadus, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 265.
39. Broadus, 264.
40. Broadus, Favorite Sermons of John A. Broadus, 91–97.
41. Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville: Southern Seminary, 2019), 5.
42. Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville: Southern Seminary, 2019), 6.
43. Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville: Southern Seminary, 2019), 26.
44. Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville: Southern Seminary, 2019), 3.

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